Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be deaf? Nearly 1,000,000 million people in the U.S. do not have to imagine. They live their everyday lives, some with assistance, others alone, with this disability. Wonderstruck tries to lend us their ears, as we “hear” the world from the perspective of two deaf children.
The film begins in 1977 with Ben (Oakes Fegley), a boy from Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, who has recently lost his mother. He’s also completely unaware of the whereabouts of his father. In the interim, he lives with his aunt. One night—during a storm—Ben goes back to his former home and finds a book called, “Wonderstruck.” Inside of it is a bookmark signed by his father with a phone number to a bookstore. Ben tries to call this number during the storm, but lightning strikes his home, and causes him to become deaf. Yea, I’ll get to how preposterous that sounds like, later (Note, not a pun). Soon, he decides to run off to New York to find his father.
Later, the scenes with Ben transition to Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl living in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey who is also without a mother. Her mom’s a famous film actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who left her and her father to continue an acting career. Rose runs away from her father to find her mother in New York.
The major draw of Wonderstruck is how visually beautiful it is. The film is based on a book of the same name, and one of the biggest decisions a director has to make is representation. The Director, Todd Haynes, could have decided to shoot both the 1927 and 1977 scenes the same way. Instead, he decides to shoot the 1927 scenes in black-and-white, and the 1977 scenes in color. This representation is utterly brilliant. Mainly, because of the contrasting decades. I mean, if there’s one polar opposite of 1927, it’s the sweaty, grimy, poor fashion choices of 1977 New York.
As we follow Rose and Ben through their respective journeys, they both go through the normal issues of being deaf. Rose nearly gets hit by a car and Ben gets robbed in broad daylight, wait, that happens to everyone in New York. Having said that, the film is really about communication. Neither of these children know sign language, and few people know they are deaf. The Rose’s scenes quite literally form a silent movie. Early in the film, there’s a great trick by Haynes when Rose goes to a theater to see a silent film starring her mother. In that moment, Wonderstruck essentially becomes a silent film within a silent film. Ben’s scenes have greater diegetic sound because if you’re going to film 1977 New York, then sound is everything.
What is represented, is the fear shared by both Rose and Ben. Rose, from not understanding why adults are yelling at her, and Ben, struggling in a world he’s not accustomed to. Both are lucky enough to find people who can help them. Rose finds her brother Walter, while Ben finds Jamie (Jaden Michael), a boy whose father works for the Museum of Natural History. I think we only see Jamie’s father once, and apparently it’s alright for him to stay out for two days without contacting his dad. You know, the ole’ sleepover excuse. But hey, it’s 1977 New York….where Son of Sam is still on the loose. Makes sense.
Eventually, Ben finds an older Rose (Julianne Moore), who tells him about his father. This is probably my favorite sequence, as Haynes uses a large diorama of New York and variant-colored lighting to demonstrate the passage of time. He intersperses the diorama shots, with stop-motion animation to recap, Rose’s, Ben’s, and Ben’s father’s journey up to this point.
Unfortunately, for all of Wonderstruck‘s amazing visuals, it lacks storytelling. Ben getting his deafness from lightning is a stretch. It’s a stretch that, frankly, I don’t think is needed. Not when Ben could have easily been born deaf. Also, I wonder how two children are able to seamlessly navigate themselves around a city they’ve never been to. But most of all, is the fact that there’s no real drama. For the most part, even with the switches from black-and-white to color, the story is not dynamic. There are very few obstacles either of these children have to overcome, other than their obvious disability. Rose has no problem finding her mother, just as she has no problem finding her brother Walter, later. Ben has no issues boarding a bus, finding the initial location of the bookstore, and finding the new location of the bookstore.
There has to be more in a story than loose associations between characters and a sequence of events. Those events have to say something about the characters, and must change them in some way. But the Rose we meet in the beginning is the same one at end (barring aging). The Ben we meet at the inception of the film is the same at the end. We learn nothing new about them, and really miss what it means for these characters to essentially be orphans.
For all of its visuals, Wonderstruck could have gone further and been better. It could have told a story, a story that often leaves Rose and Ben lost for words.
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